The Beauty in the Unexpected

Tragic news upset our plans yesterday. From what could be determined by our local liaisons, Sacha and Tanya Elder and their local contacts, a mass suicide was committed in Pondicherry yesterday by a family that was evicted from the local ashram after a legal battle over sexual assault that lasted a dozen years. The Indian Supreme Court finally denounced the case, and required the family’s eviction. As a result, a transport strike was conducted in Pondicherry to protest the ashram and police for conducting the eviction. We could not visit Pondicherry out of concern that rioters would attack transport vehicles that were working in the area. In a brilliant piece of improvisation, our professors Charles Talcott and Tanya managed to reorganize the schedule for a productive day, and it happened to contain the most beautiful settings we’ve visited so far. First was the Auroville Botanical Gardens, a sprawling piece of land hosting a variety of local and foreign plants. We were guided around the areas of the gardens and explained some of the activities of the maintainers of the gardens. Income for the IMG_2006 (1024x683)gardens is partially generated by providing consulting and planning to other centers, such as hotels, on their landscape design and how to make resource use in their landscapes more efficient. Seeds of native vegetables are sold for some income, but also to provide Indian farmers with access to non-copyright seeds.Groups from local schools also visit the garden, and the experience is made as fun and memorable as possible to give the children positive connotations with the environment. A devastating cyclone that hit a few years ago wiped out the tall non-native trees, and caused damage that has only just been overcome after years of work. The wiping out of old trees did provide the landscape with space for much needed growth. Next, we visited the Mohanam Community Center for Culture and Education. It is centered in one of the oldest houses in the village of Sanjeevi Nagar.IMG_2069 (1024x683)Children were doing extracurricular activities in the back yard. Girls were learning a dance, and the boys too, but a dance that seemed combative nature in which they beat sticks together. Some AUP students tried to learn the girls dance with them.IMG_2066 (1024x683)The patient women of the center taught us how to draw mandalas on the ground. Inside, the founder explained the efforts of the center to keep alive local culture by conducting classes in traditional practices, such as cooking, dancing, and other arts. It has taken a year to build the trust of the community before members finally spoke up and offered to teach whatever they could. Now, the center provides a space where all ages can expand their cultural appreciation, and where children can escape the rigid structure of learning in Indian schools and explore their creative capacities and have fun learning their heritage. We watched the children present different dances and chants, before being served a beautiful luxurious Tamil meal. Afterwards we were given a tour of the neighborhood and explained some of the cultural significance of what we saw, such as demon heads on door corners, and the origin of the name of the village. Finally, we visited the Auroville Bamboo Center, where a quirky odd couple named Matt and Walter explained the ecological and structural benefits of bamboo and the centers activities. Matt is a hyper-enthusiastic 10-month volunteer and Walter is one of the founders of the center, who gleefully interrupted Matt from time to time to remind him of what he had to mention to us. The center sells products made of bamboo, but gains most of its income from the workshops it conducts with foreigners in how to build and create goods with bamboo. Local women are employed making decorations and jewelry and men often make furniture. The free workshops also give local youth a chance to learn real practical trade skills that can earn them a wage to provide a decent living. It was a day of spirit and color, and nothing could have compared to the conclusion. Auroville hosted a Christmas market at its youth center. Various caravans, tents and huts of straw and wood were set up, with Christmas lights stringed between them over our heads not to be outdone by the zip line gliding kids through the forest canopy.IMG_2103 (1024x683)This was the more adventurous alternative to being hoisted up on the enormous teeter totter and spun on the merry-go-round. There were local and traveling vendors of soaps, jewelry and clothes, in between a few food stands. Underneath one tent was a singer on a guitar, competing with the reggae and 70s music playing over by the crepe vendor, all of this surrounded by jungle. It was a market to rival a bohemian state fair. Just another day of extraordinary visions in a surreal montage of moments unique from the last.

-Anya VerKamp

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